The last time I went to Japan was to film a show for Channel 4 about its weirdest, seediest and strangest subcultures. I left vaguely traumatised, so I felt compelled to return and experience modern Tokyo to gain an authentic understanding of the city.
"I left vaguely traumatised, so I felt compelled to return..."
Across Japanese culture, there is a strange dichotomy between ultra-high tech modernity and an obsession with an almost-Victorian sense of modesty, cleanliness and propriety. Strict traditional social etiquette in Japan means expression explodes in the less-structured parts of society. And this explains why, in such a modest culture, absurdist and alternative subcultures have become so popular.
During our first few days in Japan, the culture shock short-circuited my brain, and we quickly realised that anything ‘Japanese’ we have experienced in the West is a heavily watered down and westernised version of the original. My English brain strained to find a way into this culture — experiencing the most popular Japanese food, technology and fashion in order to gain a better insight. Here is what I learnt, and my top recommendations for anyone looking to visit…
The fashion scene is something to behold
Kawaii means ‘cute’, and is a style that has an almost-religious following in Japan. The Harajuki district is full of all things adorable and, on the more commercial main street, Takeshita Dori houses shops stocked with everything you never knew you needed. I bought an octopus hat, some school girl outfits for my Chihuahua and a giant teddy-bear onesie. Enough said.
For more up-scale and cutting-edge fashion, Dover Street Market Ginza is the spiritual home of Commes De Garcon and a must-see spot for fans of modern architectural and interiors. Fashion junkies will go mad for the endless floors of the world’s most innovative fashion.
Shibuya’s warren-like alleys hides a multitude of independent fashion and arty boutiques. My favourite spot was the bookshop Utrecht, which sells rare photography books and local zines. If you can find it in the maze of tiny streets, it’s a treasure.
The tech is out of this world
Japan is paving the way in Virtual and Augmented Reality, and there is no better place than Tokyo to begin exploring this brave new world. The VR Zone in Shinjuku completely blew my mind (experiencing Mario Kart VR — complete with wind machine and hydraulics — was possibly one of my greatest experiences).
Last time I was in Japan, everywhere I went was full of horrible cigarette smoke. Tighter restrictions on public smoking and the viral popularity of IQOS have changed all that. Trust Japanese tech to find a futuristic and high-tech alternative to smoking. When it launched there were queues around the block and everyone seems to be doing it. And there’s no horrible smoke or ash. It’s like something out of Blade Runner.
Head to the Shinjuku district for neon signs, mad tech shops, and a giant life-size Godzilla which attacks a skyscraper every night at 6pm. The Robot Hotel does not deserve the hype surrounding it, but the Robot Restaurant is one of the best places I’ve ever been. Forget the food and enjoy a show of escalating insanity — it has to be seen to be believed.
The food is varied, themed and utterly delicious
Famed for that Samurai massacre scene in Kill Bill, the Gonpachi Nishiazabu restaurant is glorious. It smells of charred smoke and cooking meats upon entry, and bottles delicately clink in an atmospheric setting that seems tailor-made for people-watching. I also couldn’t resist a visit to Nobu Tokyo, and was thrilled to find that the black cod was just as fantastic as everyone has told me.
Golden Gai is drinking district, and one of my favourite places in Tokyo. Picture a narrow gridded network of narrow streets with a mass of tiny, themed bars — each only big enough for about five people. For ramen-lovers, Oreryu in Shibuya district serves the best authentic dishes to swathes of businessmen, who sit tightly packed along banqueting tables while the open kitchen kicks out heat and glorious food.
So head to Tokyo, pull on your octopus hat and play a game or two of immersive Mario Kart. Then catch a Victorian taxi to a restaurant staffed by robots, and finish the night drinking in an alien-themed bar. Kanpai!
Not travelling as far as Tokyo this summer? Check out the hottest spots around the Med instead…